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Florida juvenile justice systems offline after hacker break in

Department of Juvenile Justice

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Hackers broke into the computer network of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in Tallahassee, which runs the state's juvenile detention centers and programs to steer troubled kids away from crime. It led to a continuing shutdown of the digital backbone the agency uses to manage cases statewide.

The department took some of its computer systems offline as early as March 29 due to what spokeswoman Amanda Slama described as an unspecified security concern, she confirmed in a statement Thursday afternoon, two days after a reporter’s initial inquiries about the matter.

Slama said the affected systems include the Juvenile Justice Information System, the backbone for the entire agency.

"We are still assessing the situation," Slama said in a statement. "Protecting the integrity of our systems is our top priority."

A department employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said hackers were seeking a ransom to restore the agency’s systems. The break in happened last week when an employee opened an infected email, this person said. The employee was not authorized to talk publicly about the incident.

State and local government agencies in Florida are prohibited under a 2022 state law that Gov Ron DeSantis signed from paying ransoms to hackers.

Some email accounts for employees were bouncing messages as undeliverable and indicating that internet routing for large parts of the entire department – fldjj.gov – was offline. The public website for the agency appeared to be unaffected.

Some employees across Florida were told to go home from their offices and write information about ongoing juvenile cases in offline Microsoft Word documents so they could enter the material into the system whenever it came back online.

A hacking incident has affected the Florida juvenile justice systems.
A hacking incident has affected the Florida juvenile justice systems.

Slama declined to answer any further questions, including about the report of a ransom demand or which law enforcement agencies were investigating.

The outage’s effects included preventing employees from uploading records needed by judges in upcoming court hearings. It also was causing employees to lose access to records about juvenile criminal cases, including phone numbers and home addresses of young offenders who officials must contact regularly for check-ins as part of their probation requirements.

Under state law, any serious ransom demands by hackers or computer break ins must be reported to the Florida Cybersecurity Operations Center and the Cybercrime Office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement within 48 hours after a break in, or no more than 12 hours after a ransom demand.

Those cases also must be reported to the House speaker, Rep. Paul Renner, and the Senate president, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, whose husband died in a hiking accident Wednesday. Passidomo’s spokeswoman declined Thursday to discuss the computer intrusion.

The governor’s press office, the House speaker’s spokesman, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and office of the state’s chief information officer did not immediately respond to questions about what was happening.

The juvenile justice department is run by Eric S. Hall, appointed by DeSantis as secretary in November 2021. Hall previously served in the education department under the DeSantis administration.

This is a breaking news story. Check back for further developments. This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at vivienneserret@ufl.edu.